Eclectic picnic: Paul Muldoon's feast of poetry and prose
The New York-based Irish poet is bringing his variety show outside the US for the first time with a tour of his homeland. He tells our reporter how the original idea came from a sketch performed in the 1880s
There's a YouTube clip of a poetry reading given in 2010 by the poet Paul Muldoon. In it, the Pulitzer Prize-winner reads from his 11th collection, Maggot, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
Part of the way through, Muldoon stops abruptly and looks quizzically to one side. "Ah, that must be Jackson Browne next door, is it?" he asks the audience. Browne is an American singer-songwriter. "He is here tonight, I think, isn't he?"
A murmur of polite assent rises up around the room. With an opportunist's amusement, Muldoon waits a few beats, brushes his nose, and lets a wry smile work its way over his entire face before looking out to his audience and saying: "I can't imagine they're having more fun than we are." The line lands as intended.
When Muldoon reads, he reads with deliberation and care. He knows a thing or two about pitch, pause and pace. He performs. He makes prolonged eye contact look easy, texts look optional, and savours each line as though he's coming to it for first time.
It is scarcely surprising, then, that in 2013 he proposed an idea for a monthly variety show, which he would host, to the Irish Arts Center in New York City. The result, Muldoon's Picnic, is often described as an "mixum-gatherum of words and music". Tickets generally sell out.
This month, at the instigation of Poetry Ireland, Muldoon's Picnic will tour Ireland for the first time, stopping off in Navan, Galway, Cork, Carrick-on-Shannon, Belfast and Dublin.
"The guideline is you get a bit of this, bit of that, bit of the other," Muldoon says of the programme, which is bit of a tasting menu of music, prose, and poetry. "Chances are it works out just fine. If something is a little longer, or not as fascinating as one might have hoped… it happens, I suppose. Generally, I think it's been pretty good. If that does turn out to be the case, well, a few minutes later there's something else."
Often, there is little gambling. Muldoon's Picnic has hosted an array of musical and literary luminaries: Jean Butler, Peter Carey, Mary Karr, Nick Laird and his wife Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, Van Morrison, Eileen Myles, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph O'Connor, Salman Rushdie, Tracy K Smith, Colm Tóibín, and Colson Whitehead, who was shortlisted last month for the Man Booker prize, among others.
The show has Irish - or, more specifically, Irish-American - origins, Muldoon explains. The original Muldoon's Picnic was a sketch in the music-hall tradition performed across the US northeast in the 1880s. The namesake protagonist was a comic character conjured up by a celebrated New York-based Irish songwriter, playwright and performer, Edward Harrigan. Muldoon was a risible politician immortalised in a traditional song, 'Muldoon, the Solid Man'. The ensuing farce-style show reportedly featured a skating routine and a three-hand reel. The logo for the 21st century Muldoon's Picnic is a scene borrowed from the original vaudevillian posters. "Topsy-turvy, with the little horse and buggy, everything going arse over tip, as they say," Muldoon says.
"The style reflects that particular era, when that was the main form of entertainment, or one of them. One of the things I rather like to try to engender during it is the sense that it's just a few people out for a night's fun."
Growing up in Armagh, Muldoon used to attend nights like this at the parish hall. "People would stand up and they would recite a poem or they'd put on a little play. These were local farmers, out working in the fields during the day. But they were poets. They ran amateur dramatics. They sang. They played music," he recalls. "I can't really tell you exactly what makes it work, but it does seem to work."
Muldoon as MC or frontman also works - breezy but switched on, at ease at the mic and against music, typically in a black round-neck t-shirt and a blazer - although he suggests he had no overt interest in the role, but felt a sense of inherited duty. "I knew there was this entertainment called Muldoon's Picnic, and I thought, well, being a Muldoon, of sorts, that the natural thing would be for me to do it. Right?" he asks, smiling, in no need of affirmation. "Right."
Muldoon is the poetry editor at The New Yorker and a professor at Princeton University where he teaches, among others, a songwriting module. While fond of the traditional relationship between beat poetry and jazz, he says that marriage, and others, are "not without some issues" and he continues to wonder "how best, if at all, to combine words and music".
The variety format allows him to fudge a conclusion on that point, "a delicate thing", as each component bit of Muldoon's Picnic has its own, standalone slot. Muldoon mentions Sunday Night at the London Palladium, as it existed in the 1950s and 60s, as somehow instructive. The magazine style of the show, the selection of a series of parts, is also familiar to Muldoon because of his time as a radio producer and presenter at the BBC. One of his shows was actually called Bazaar.
He adds that he used to relish in what he called "the Sunday morning sequence" of RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany followed by Mo Cheol Thú, presented by the late Ciarán Mac Mathúna.
"I worked at RTÉ at one point, just, you know, kind of visiting, passing through," he says. "Ciarán was the consummate laid-back presenter. You would wonder if he was awake at times. He was very, very cool. And I just loved that sequence of things. This is a formula that's tried and true."
The show has a "house band", Rogue Oliphant, sometimes referred to as a "spoken word music group". Muldoon is part of the band.
"It's probably inappropriate to describe it as a band," he tells. "It's a group of musicians, quite a large group, a few of them will work on this, a few of them will work on that. It's very various, again, and that's one of its strengths, I think."
Rogue Oliphant hardly ever repeats a song, often playing two or three new ones on a given night. "I think it's great. A lot of people don't think that's great," says Muldoon. "In the record business, they feel a band has to have a sound. And of course we understand what that means, that there's something recognisable about them. On the other hand, far too often it leads to kind of a terrible monotonous feel which I just don't like."
Joining Muldoon for a leg of the upcoming Irish tour are musicians The Lost Brothers, Duke Special, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Martin Hayes, Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Paul Brady, Declan O'Rourke and Camille O'Sullivan, the actress Lisa Dwan, authors Lisa McInerney, Anne Enright, Jennifer Johnston, Paul Murray and Patrick McCabe, and poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland, Michael Longley and Sinéad Morrissey.
"I think we always have a poet," says Muldoon, who never reads his own work, but sees the show as a vehicle for poetry in general. "Absolutely," he says.
I allude to Muldoon's showmanship and he dismisses any suggestion that it is exceptional rather than normal. "My own view is if you're going to stand up and read poetry, you've go to do something. You have to put some effort into it," he says.
"There's a performative aspect to it, and why wouldn't there be? Many people in Ireland would have been familiar with this at the feis, in verse-speaking competitions. I was seven or eight when I first went to a feis and did my first verse-speaking. 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. It's not a bad thing at all.
"People understood that to recite a poem really demanded some kind of engagement. You only get back what you put in. It's as simple as that. It's one of the laws of all forms of entertainment, I'd say."
Muldoon's Picnic is governed mostly by this law. The incorporation of music, the investment in it on the night, too, further ropes in the audience.
"Music is a whole other component with, as you know, this emotional power," Muldoon says. "One person playing has a kind of power. Several people playing together… I mean, it's phenomenal… it doesn't even matter if they're any good, really. Go and see a band on the back of a lorry somewhere. They don't have to be U2. All for the good if it is U2, but there's an intrinsic delight just about the emotional impact that music has. It's not that it doesn't engage the mind, but it engages so much else."
He pauses before continuing. "I think that's one of the things that I've been drawn to myself, when I try to write songs, and I'd never really put it much more strongly than that. Although I wouldn't put it much more strongly than that about the poetry, either. One tries, you know? One tries. One can but try. One's almost certain - almost certain - not to succeed, but, one tries. And that's where the interest is."
Muldoon's Picnic will tour Ireland from August 26 to September 3.
For locations, see www.poetryireland.ie